THOMSON, Ga (WJBF)- This month, the 28th annual Blind Willie McTell Music Festival is happening in Thomson. You may have heard of the festival and wondered who Blind Willie McTell was.
Blind Willie McTell is considered one of the greatest blues musicians of the 1920’s and 30’s. Born in the Happy Valley Community in Thomson and later moving to Statesboro, McTell’s music continues to influence musicians today.
Bob Dylan sang that “No one could sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell.”
“And I would say today, he’s probably one of four or five of the most renowned guitar players of the genre of music,” said Don Powers, Chairman of the Thomson Activities Council.
William Samuel McTier or Blind Willie McTell was born in 1901. He was born blind though it’s unclear if he was fully blind or if he completely lost his sight a little later in childhood.
McTell was born into a family of musicians and learned to play harmonica and the accordion at an early age.
Powers said he learned to play the six string guitar as a teenager, which led him to learning his signature instrument.
“He played a 12 string guitar. And he, along with Ledbelly, Huddy Ledbetter, are two of the most well known 12 string blues players,” Powers said.
His father left the family when McTell was a child and his mother died in the early 1920’s. Afterwards, he left his hometown to become a traveling street musician, playing a unique mix of Piedmont Blues, Ragtime, Gospel and popular music.
“Calling him a blues player is really kind of a misnomer. He was a street musician, basically. And so anything that would make money drop into his cup while he was playing on the street is what he played,” explained Powers.
McTell attended several schools for the blind in Georgia, New York and Michigan. He could read and write music in Braille, which may have been part of what made him so uniquely talented.
Most blues players of the time were uneducated and completely self taught, but Powers said McTell was different.
“He was a smart guy who was very inventive, not only with his guitar playing, but his lyrical- the way he put together lyrics.”
McTell was known for his clear, soulful tenor voice and intricate guitar picking style. While he was primarily a street musician he began recording his music in Atlanta in 1927 for Victor Records.
Like many blues players of that era he never produced a hit record during his lifetime, but that was likely because of the social climate of the time.
“I think they probably made a living, but I don’t think they achieved big success probably because of the fact that they were African American,” explained Powers. “I mean you think about one of the most successful country musicians ever, the father of country music was Jimmy Rogers. He was from Meridian, Mississippi. He was no different than any guy at that time. He just happened to be a white guy who sang Blues music.”
McTell recorded more than 100 songs in his lifetime with different labels and under many different names. He is most known by Blind Willie, but was also called Blind Sammie, Georgia Bill, Red Hot Willie and Pig & Whistle Red after a BBQ restaurant in Atlanta.
“I can only speculate that he used names that were unique and that were- he maybe had contracts under a name and then he wanted to make music with somebody else and so he changed his name,” Powers laughed.
McTell married Ruth Kate Williams in 1934. She recorded a few songs with him before becoming a nurse and moving to Fort Gordon 8 years later. They lived apart for most of their marriage while she worked and he traveled playing his music.
Lewis Smith, former Director at the McDuffie Museum, said McTell’s ability to travel alone all over the Eastern Seaboard, even though he was blind, was remarkable.
“He could go to Atlanta, downtown by himself. He didn’t need a dog. He didn’t need a helper. He knew every bus stop and exactly where he needed to transfer,” Smith marveled. “The only thing he couldn’t do is, if a bus came and somebody was nearby, he’d say what number is that? He knew what bus to get on. And he had to transfer like three times.”
His last recording was in 1956, when an Atlanta records store manager named Edward Rhodes heard him playing on the street.
Legend has it that Rhodes lured McTell to his store with a bottle of corn liquor, because by that time he was an alcoholic, and recorded him playing a few songs.
In 1957 until he died in 1959, McTell was a preacher at Mount Zion Baptist Church in Atlanta. He died from a stroke in Milledgeville, Ga. McTell is buried in the cemetery at Jones Grove Church in Thomson’s Happy Valley community.
“And this is Blind Willie’s tombstone and he was buried with this. And Eddie McTier is Blind Willie’s Daddy. And the guy that ordered this tombstone over the phone to Atlanta was named Borat McTier and he was Blind Willie’s first cousin and they got it mixed up,” Smith explained. “So David Fulmer, a music producer and author in Atlanta said that Blind Willie deserved better than this. So, he had a beautiful blue marble tombstone made.”
People go to the cemetery often to pay homage to Blind Willie leaving behind tokens. Some leave coins as a nod to his career as a street performer and other leave alcohol containers.
Elizabeth Vance, McDuffie County Tourism Director, helps organize the Annual Blind Willie McTell Music Festival. She said she finds his influence over modern performers and music lovers very interesting.
“To become so revered by mainstream guitar players. Even in the documentary about him by David Fulmer, it said that he is considered now, to be the Eric Clapton of his time,” Vance said.
While you may never have heard of Blind Willie McTell, you likely have heard of some artists whose music he influenced.
Jack White of the White Stripes dedicated an album to him. Bob Dylan wrote the song “Blind Willie McTell” about him. And the Allman Brothers made one of his songs famous.
“His most famous song was “Statesboro Blues” and we around Thomson choke that down. It was later recorded by a blues musician called Taj Mahal who is still out there playing today. And the most famous version of it was the Allman Brothers,” Powers revealed.
Vance explained that the tourism board is working to better highlight McTell in town.
They started with placing large guitars painted by local artists around downtown Thomson, replicas of the 12 string that McTell played. There are several murals with him as the subject. Vance said they are working on having a statue of him made.
She also said she continues to be surprised at how far people will come just to see where McTell was born and lived for part of his life.
“That project itself has brought people to see it as far away as Finland. That shocked me when they walked in the door and said ‘Hey, we’re here to see the 12 string strut. Can we get a map?’ So, people who are blues fans and people who are Blind Willie fans have come here from that far away just to see something to do with him,” she said.
The Blind Willie McTell Music Festival is now on its 28th year and McTell remains the central theme.
“So obviously, we think Blind Willie is important to our history or else we wouldn’t be doing those things,” said Vance.
Blind Willie McTell was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1981 and into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in 1990.
The Blind Willie McTell Music Festival will be on September 24th. Gates open at 11 a.m. and some of the bands on the roster include The Texas Gentlemen and Chatham County Line.
Headlining is Jimmie Vaughn, brother of blues legend Stevie Ray Vaughn.
Hey Thomson! That’s just part of your Hometown History.
Photojournalist: Will Baker.